Apr 19, 2006

Local Universities Meet the Phoenix Challenge


(Toledo, OH) Stodgy old professors writing on chalkboards and uncomfortable wooden seats are a few of the memories that many people have of their college classroom experiences.

The technological revolution, however, has also revolutionized the process of attaining a college degree. Many students find that distance learning (DL) courses are easier to fit into their busy schedules.

With over 150 campuses, the nation’s largest online program and over 300,000 students, the for-profit University of Phoenix is the nation's largest private university. The university’s parent company, the Apollo Group, recorded $2.2 billion in revenues last year, and recently created Axia College, an online institution designed to tap into the market for associate degrees.

Critics have derided the distance learning phenomenon as “dot degrees,” but local universities and colleges have had to quickly adjust to online competitors.

One local institution – the University of Toledo – has achieved distinction in the distance learning field. UT is currently ranked as the largest online program among four-year institutions in the state of Ohio.

“UT is offering 784 courses online this year, and our DL enrollment will be over 11,000 students,” said Karen Rhoda, director of Distance and eLearning at the University of Toledo. “The university has been experiencing double-digit growth in distance learning students for the past five years.”

Rhoda said that there are important differences between DL courses at UT as compared with similar courses at online schools like the University of Phoenix.

“Most of the distance learning courses offered at UT are taught by tenured faculty,” she said. “Many of the for-profit online schools offer classes taught by instructors with bachelor or master’s degrees, and some of those instructors may not even be teachers by trade, merely having some experience in a technical field.”

One of the most attractive features of UT’s distance learning program, according to Rhoda, is the ability for students to have flexibility in scheduling.

“Many students add one or two distance learning courses because of time conflicts with the traditional classes on campus,” she said. “Many of the core curriculum classes needed by undergraduates to fulfill degree requirements are available.”

Unlike some traditional universities, students enrolled in DL classes at UT can complete entire degrees without setting foot in a traditional classroom.”

“We offer a variety of bachelor’s degrees that can be completed entirely online,” she said. “We also offer a Master of Liberal Studies and a Master of Science in Engineering at the graduate level.”

Rhoda said that UT continues to fine tune its distance learning program to remain competitive with schools like the University of Phoenix.

“In 2005 we unveiled an online eWriting Center for distance learning students,” she said. “This is one of many support services offered by the university to provide DL students with a quality education.”

Russ Sprinkle works as a tutor for UT’s eWriting Center, and he believes the quality of this service exceeds that provided by other online programs.

“UT’s eWriting Center closely models its existing campus Writing Center,” he said, adding that he also tutors online for Phoenix. “We work with individual students to develop their writing skills as many times as they need over the course of a semester, rather than giving a brief glance at a submitted paper.”

Bowling Green State University has also been making strides in developing online degree programs.

“In the current semester we have 1,282 students in 87 online classes,” said Connie Molnar, director of distance learning at BGSU. “There has been almost a four-fold increase in the number of DL students at BGSU since 2001.”

BGSU received a $45,000 grant from the Ohio Learning Network to fund the establishment of a Learning Community Initiative Regional Center. The grant will support local faculty learning communities.

“The goal of the now four-year old OLN Learning Communities Initiative is to support high quality learning and teaching as colleges and universities employ technology in courses,” said Molnar.

Like UT, BGSU offers online BA and MA programs, as well as a consortium PhD degree in Technology Management.

Owens Community College has also joined the online education movement, and there are currently 5,500 eOwens students enrolled in 247 online class sections.

“That is approximately 25% of our total enrollment and is nearly a 50% increase of eOwens students over spring 2005,” said Mark Karamol, division director of eLearning at Owens. “Students can complete six different degrees and two certificates entirely via eOwens.”

Owens also offers instructional packages called Telecourses, in which students pick up audio or videotapes of lectures and email their work to the instructor, said Karamol.

For the foreseeable future, online colleges will continue to grow in enrollment and course offerings. Northwest Ohio colleges and universities appear to be in a perfect position to attract the high-tech students of the 21st century.

This article also appears in this week's Toledo Free Press.


Hooda Thunkit said...

Hmmmm. Maybe there's hope for me yet!

I'd LOVE to go back to school and get a degree in some sort of IS/IT field.

Then again, I could finish what I started and get my Bachelor's in E.E.

Do you have any idea what the pricing looks like for DL classes Mike?

historymike said...

Never too late, Hooda.

I was 36 when I went back to finish my BA. I started with 6 credits and then jumped to full time in my second semester back.

As far as pricing, it is identical to on-campus classes, although some schools waive a few fees an inducement to attract students.

With fees, the last semester I took as an undergrad a few years ago was about $3K at UT for 14 credits.

Name withheld to protect the guilty said...

"some of those instructors may not even be teachers by trade, merely having some experience in a technical field."

Since this sounds like some of the crappier tenured faculty I've had (taught because they had to to continue their research), that's pretty much an invalid argument against U of Phoenix.

In fact, I can think of many areas where I'd rather be taught by someone who walks the walk and teaches part time.

historymike said...

I agree, NWTPG, that I have met many "uneducated" people who were geniuses, and that a few academics I have met were, well, not very useful.

That being said, there are some courses I would prefer to take a chance on someone with a PhD than a BA.

In my field, as a historian, the training of nine years and three degrees will generally produce someone who knows the discipline.

When I received my BA, I was still fairly green. The MA process sort of showed me what I didn't know, and filled in a few of the gaps.

Getting my PhD will not make me a better instructor, but will ensure at least that my grasp of the basics in my field is solid.

However, there are some technical fields, plus the business world, that I would probably learn more from someone with a lot of field experience.

I learned almost nothing useful in my 1980s forays into business school as compared with what I learned from smart people who practiced accounting, marketing, and finance on a daily basis.

Stephanie said...

Thank you, Mike. This made for good reading. More people need to know there are accredited schools out there who are willing to be flexible with them.

Stephanie said...

Personally, I don't like tenure because if the professor sucks there's virtually no re-course. I don't think tenure means the person is a better teacher, either. I've had some pretty sucky tenured teachers. Caring (both about the subject and about the students) is the determining factor in my experience.

The Commentator said...

I wonder what Edward Gibbons would have thought about on-line education. He wasn't fond of Universities to begin with!

Lloyd said...

I personally don't think one learns as much with these online courses as in the classroom.

This is based on my experience with only 2 online classes though...

historymike said...

Me neither, Lloyd. I much prefer sitting in a classroom and picking the professor's brain.

Then again, we are not college kids, either, and we are paying our own way. As consumers we expect the most for our money.